Threats – what kind of world do we live in?

Threats do not only come from the outside. Without being arrogant or paranoid, our society also has its own weaknesses, which make us vulnerable when it comes to global security. We are going to look at both internal (endogenous) and external (exogenous) threats, but first, it’s important to emphasise a fact – one that is often misunderstood by the media – and that affects the very nature of modern society.

Unexpected fragmentation (of society)

This enormously unexpected factor is that our society is and will remain fragmented. In effect, the following groups co-exist:

* A post-modern world of “high flying”, mobile and rich individuals, operating in networks – if you want to be harsh, a plutocracy. They live in “smart” towns in a world without borders or distance. They communicate using ever more sophisticated information technologies.

* A modern world, a world of classic developed nation states, OECD type states.

* And – we’ll use the same term even if the meaning is a little different – a third world that is sometimes anarchic and violent, or the opposite, authoritarian or near theocracies (Iran and possibly Iraq too in the future), hybrid capitalist and nationalist (China) states, states that have failed and pretend democracies.

* This is where we find the new and surprising factors – and, if any proof were needed that anticipation is difficult, then here it is: no one anticipated this fragmentation! From the 18th to the 20th Century, all the great political analysts and social visionaries predicted that industrialisation would generate a standard worldwide political-economic system. According to Auguste Comte, the “technocracy” was the right way to achieve prosperity, peace and social justice for the planet”, for Karl Marx it was communist socialism, for Herbert Spencer, liberal capitalism. Again in the 1960s, the American sociologist Daniel Bell believed that the planned economy would merge with the market economy to create a mixed economy.

But society did not merge. On the contrary, we find ourselves in a permanently fragmented world: “several methods of development will co-exist with the liberal model… the centrally controlled Russian or Chinese model, or an Islamic model which might even combine economic efficiency and religion. Quite the opposite of a flat world.”

This is all the more true because in addition to the fragmentation of the political world, there’s been increasing fragmentation of the business world since the start of the economic crisis, as individual states promote their national interests: the renationalisation of strategic raw materials (oil and gas in Latin America for example); and the proliferation of bilateral agreements, with the United States in particular. This fragmentation is posing serious security problems – above all to our “information society”, because:

* Fragmentation means difficulty in controlling activities, which benefits criminals, traffickers and terrorists.

* Fragmentation also means serious social disparities between “fragments”. Constant television coverage of the lives of the “rich” creates a strong “Tantalus Syndrome” among the poor – not those who are exploited (as the communists would have it) but those who are neglected or forgotten. But in the shantytowns of Sao Paolo or Lagos, organised crime is the only certain way to rise up the social ladder.

So, in our fragmented world, positive and legal globalisation has its illegal, criminal and/or terrorist counterpart. This “dark side of globalisation” is hushed up or the seriousness of it denied by liberal idealism (as espoused by the Financial Times and The Economist in particular) and played down by many leading politicians, economists, financial and media personalities in the developed world. In this disorganised world, the only driving force behind developed society (basically the OECD countries) is information and communication technologies, the so-called “information society”. A society with strengths certainly – but also weaknesses, illusions and phobias.

Any consideration or study of the risks and dangers facing our continent and society must start here. There are no absolute risks, or universal threats; but there are specific dangers to the real world and society, some of which come from within (endogenous risks), and others from external sources (exogenous risks). Today, I’m going to talk about endogenous risks.

“Compliance” and “due diligence”

“Compliance” and “due diligence”: where do these concepts come from? Who developed them and why. In terms of their application: is there a balance between theory and practice? To put it another way: are “compliance” and “due diligence” effective? Do they contribute to global security?

“Due diligence” – In Anglo-Saxon law, this concept requires all civil organisations – and businesses in particular – to act with caution and take all the necessary steps, with speed and within the law, to be fully informed about new employees, clients or associates. This is to ascertain with reasonable certainty that these entities or individuals are not corrupt, criminal, or (today) terrorist, or complicit in illegal operations. In itself the principle is justifiable – but, as I’ll explain a bit later, the way it is applied tends to cause problems that are more serious than the ones it was designed to solve.

“Compliance” – is to bow down before, to submit to, laws and regulations designed to hinder or prohibit, the movement of dirty money (from crime or terrorism). Since September 11, “compliance” has become a nightmare for global banking and other systems, which manage the money flows required by each industry in the economic and financial world. Here, it is the system itself that is tainted – and by some almost ludicrous features. What is more – and the subprime crisis proves it – the system is totally ineffective.

“Compliance” and “due diligence” are two concepts of American origin. In the midst of globalisation and a world in chaos (and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future) the superpower imposes its key security practices and standards on the rest of the world. In addition to strengthening national criminal laws against terrorism and money laundering, it is this power that tells us what standards we must meet, what behaviour and practices are forbidden and must be penalised – sometimes heavily.

And why not after all? Such prescriptive powers are classic in history and our criticism isn’t “anti-imperialist”. But on analysis, are these criteria, examples, standards and principles dictated by the superpower, actually effective? Are they reliable? Do they protect businesses and beyond that, the world, from the real dangers and threats facing them today? Or are they, on the contrary, merely a simulacrum of security, an illusion of protection? These are the points considered here.

The concepts of “compliance” and “due diligence” aim to force the world to apply solutions that may (possibly) be efficient in the United States, but that (intentionally or not) disregard the huge differences – gulfs – that exist between different civilisations and cultures: to put it simply, ignoring the fact that they don’t do things in Peshawar (frontier province in North-East Pakistan) the same way as in Peoria (Illinois). Hence the results are often disappointing or counter-productive and sometimes discouraging.

Because these solutions are supposed to have universal application – in Peshawar, Peoria, Pretoria and Perpignan — they concentrate on the symptoms and are bound to ignore the causes. To use a medical metaphor – it’s like putting cream on a rash without considering whether an allergy is the underlying cause of the spots.

The second failure in the design of the “compliance” and “due diligence” system is that the people who developed and apply it haven’t looked critically at the “information” society in which we live. No account is taken of intrinsic weaknesses and those caused by globalisation – still a decisive element in the diagnostic process for assessing threats. “Compliance” and “due diligence” systems stem from a world view that is stereotyped and ethnocentric and generates security practices that are cosmetic, responsive and bureaucratic.

Compliance: a leak is detected in a financial ’pipeline’. A patch is applied

Due diligence: are there dangerous people? Let’s draw up a list, etc

Even more serious is that this responsive “compliance” and “due diligence” system looks to the past for references and verifications. Its interest lies in what has already taken place, rules and standards; nothing, or nearly nothing, is done to check new or future activities. This system offers few new perspectives because it relies on official lists compiled after the event, of more or less recent activities, from open sources that are not always up to date. Furthermore, the official primary assessments (risks of terrorism in a given country, for example), used by this system to develop its own (secondary assessments), are anything but objective, but politicised and manipulative. For the countries that publish these assessments, they are primarily tools for subtle propaganda aimed at helping those they view as “friends” and curbing the activities of the “baddies” on the international scene.

More radically, it is debatable whether it is even possible to assess a future terrorist threat by extending curves, and thus assuming that history is predictive. It’s easy to demonstrate the futility of trying to predict terrorist acts by extending curves:

* What would have been the result of a terrorist threat assessment of the United States on September 10th 2001? And what about on September 12th?

* In terms of mass terror, what assessment predicted the risk posed by a sect like the Aum shinrikyo before the Tokyo underground attack? Or of Janjawid-type militia before the Darfur massacres? Or murderous sects such as the “Lord’s Liberation Army” or the Mungiki before the atrocities committed in Uganda and Kenya?

Built on intellectually questionable assumptions, the foundations of the “compliance” and “due diligence” systems are fragile. By assessing threats, as they do, after the event, it is only possible to have a retrospective concept of danger and so, only a false sensation that the problem is under control. Using this system, it is not possible to anticipate and predict.

Lacking wider perspectives, in the end this system has nothing to do with the realities of terrorist and/or criminal activities. I have already found hundreds of examples of how this type of “compliance” and “due diligence” system neglects crime and terrorism: the sweeping failure even of its objective (there are terrorist and mafia networks in the world).

These closed systems exist in the quiet certainty that the threats and dangers facing the world are identified and known to such an extent that it would be pointless to revisit them: in short, the enemy is so obvious – supposedly identified by intelligence services (Americans in particular) – that it is considered pointless to waste a single second on the problem this enemy poses. Instead, it instantly goes about finding solutions designed, of course, by the most futuristic technologies.

Now, on the contrary very little is known about the enemy – and again, it’s easy to prove this. If we had known a little more about the enemy, Ossama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, they would have ended up long ago like Saddam Hussein: Afghanistan and Somalia would be Swiss-style idylls and the leaders of the Columbian and Mexican drug cartels would be rotting in prison. These things seem unlikely to happen in the near future.

Why? Because those who designed the “compliance” and “due diligence” systems don’t see – don’t want to or can’t see, this important distinction is secondary here – that the world today is in a state of chaos.7 In this world, there are constant changes, agitation, mutations and hybrids – and fixed and stable structures are an exception. Like the AIDS virus, today these terrorist and/or criminal entities are constantly changing and often brutally. See the recent case of the Fatah al-Islam in Palestinian camps in Lebanon.

If you add to this – something also neglected by the “compliance” and “due diligence” systems – the fact that military responses to attacks, especially by the United States and Israel, accelerates still further the mutation of these dangerous entities, spraying them around and splitting them into even smaller particles. As a result, and because of inappropriate attacks, this enemy just keeps on becoming more nebulous, impalpable and therefore undetectable. Something made no less dangerous given the recent changes in Gaza, Lebanon and Afghanistan.

A technological fetishism

In our unstable and chaotic world, the evolutions are brutal and the mutations frequent with hybrids emerging on a daily basis. The era of a plodding, stable and slow enemy – an identifiable enemy – is over. Who in the United States identified the tiny breakaway faction of a fundamental Evangelist sect before 170 were killed in Oklahoma City? Who knew the meaning of the word Salafiya before the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings? Who suspected that a modest jamaa islamiya called Fatah al-Islam would kill 140 members of the Lebanese army – before disappearing? Who outside Africa had heard of the word Janjawid before the Darfur massacres?

Now, in diagnostic terms, hi-technology is useless and even misleading: it encourages us to forget the problem and become hypnotised by the solution, which is the equivalent of a hi-tech magic wand. Because, ignoring the opponent and believing that the enemy is obvious leads us to neglect what is dangerous today: that dooms us to consider only the threats already in our heads, known facts – by definition things that have already happened (if not past). There’s a name for it – blindness. Thus, when it comes to global security, hi-technology really “protects” us from past threats. Threats that exist only like a stored image (retinal persistence) or the twinkling of the stars – which light only themselves in far distant space and are simply an echo from long ago and that have long ceased to be a reality